I changed my cell phone carrier a few months ago. What I neglected to do was tell my new carrier to block my cell phone number so that “restricted” would show up instead of my personal number when I call someone. This is called self-preservation. I used my cell phone to call a patient. It was after hours and I needed to make the call to give some concerning results.
I felt like a jerk calling him and his wife and telling them about the test results over the phone, but it was a Friday and I knew they were waiting to hear the news. It was cancer. Lung cancer. And he didn’t have any insurance.
I once told another patient that she had lung cancer over the phone.
“Where are you?” I asked.
“Walmart,” she said cheerfully.
I asked her to come to the office so I could meet with her in person, but she said, “What is it? Goddammit, just tell me right now.” So I did. I imagined her folding in on herself, becoming smaller, her face caving in under the weight of impending tears. A sea of Walmart shoppers busying themselves around her unaware that I just shattered her world. Her voice wavered a little, straightened up and she said, “now what?”
I told another patient at her house that she had lymphoma. She and I stood in her kitchen when I told her the tests results, her husband cooking burgers out back on the grill. Her house was on my way home from the office and I knew she couldn’t wait. I knew she was anxious so I asked her if I could just come over and tell her. She agreed. I told her. I broke her heart in her own kitchen and then she hugged me.
How would I want to be told? I wouldn’t want my doctor to wait, keeping the news to themselves, maybe telling some of their staff, “can you believe it? She’s got cancer. It’s not good, probably won’t last a year.” I would want to know the moment that they did. No secrets. No hesitation. Goddammit, just tell me right now.
That’s what I did. When I got his CT results back, I called him right then, no hesitation. He answered. Is your wife home? Yes. Do you want to know the results now or come in together and I tell you both? Tell me now. So I did. Then I asked him to put his wife on the phone and I told her, too. I’ll admit the ease at which I can tell people the worst kind of news is a bit disturbing. I am not scared or sad or discouraged. I am matter-of-fact, now we know, let’s-get-to-f^cking-work beating this.
He might call my cell phone now that he has my number. If my phone rings in the middle of the night and it’s him, I’ll take the call and I’ll reassure him. I’ll remind him that I am there for him, that we got this. He’s got a partner in this fight. I’ve been there for him since that first phone call when I changed everything.
Remember that “self preservation” thing? Before you think I’m some kind of Florence Nightingale, I’m still going to block my cell phone number before I’m on call this week. I can’t have everyone know my personal cell phone number. When I’m not at work and I’m not on call, I want to be with my family, completely and fully available to them and them alone.
Photo credit: Edin Dzeko